At 4pm on Thursday, September 24, I was arrested and charged with a “failure to exercise due care.” I was not alone, and this wasn’t some prank gone awry. Over two hundred people took over a large section of Chicago Avenue in front of the Park Hyatt hotel, with some seven hundred more standing witness on the sidewalk. Since August 31, around six thousand hospitality employees have been working without a contract. Even in these tough economic times, they gathered with their union UNITE HERE Local 1 and many community allies to make a statement: We’re here, and we’re not afraid (as signs pinned to our back said quite explicitly).
The truth is, we were all kinds of afraid. The whole thing came off so tame that it was hard to remember that this was a big step for almost everyone involved, myself included. There were no handcuffs or cold jail cells, and the police were polite and civil. But I spent some long hours thinking about if I should do this, and I dreaded telling my parents. We’ve all got things and people that keep us from taking risks. But more and more, it seems that sitting idly by is just as risky. In Boston, Hyatt fired around one hundred employees without notice, replacing them with contract employees making six dollars less per hour. Here in Chicago, every major hotel company is asking UNITE HERE members to give up hard-won parts of their contract, whether concerning wages or health care. In California, public universities face unprecedented cuts. None of us are safe.
We chanted “Si se puede, yes we can,” but it was less of a throwback to the Obama campaign than to the powerful grassroots movements that made Obama’s win possible. That chant said that we got the first African-American into the White House, we got Republic Windows and Doors back open, and we’re going to get a good contract for these six thousand workers–and we won’t stop there. With the promise of a “jobless recovery” on the horizon, people are fighting and struggling. Struggles sometimes require that we dispense with “due care.”